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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Style and Beauty Tips for the Challenged - and Who Isn't, in Some Way?

It has come to my attention that some of my readers would like to know what I’ve learned in my travels among French and other style writers. Yes, indeed, certain conversations I’ve had lately with women of about my age, some older, some younger, have clued me in. I tend to roll with a very natural group - Earth mothers and such - so I’ve been rather circumspect about my dabblings in the land of fashion and beauty. Ok, maybe not so circumspect. I’m blogging about it, after all. My point is, there’s been interest. Eager interest, even. So. There you go. I aim to please.

 So. What have I learned? Well, everyone has his or her angle on style and beauty, and the whole French style thing has some amusing little published arguments going on. French women don’t get fat – well, they do. They don’t exercise at gyms – well, they do. They don’t get facelifts – well, they actually get a lot of work, maybe not classic facelifts, but then again, with all the available alternatives to surgery, lots of women don’t get facelifts and still end up looking, well, you know.

What do they agree on? 


·      Posture. Style, the consensus seems to be, depends on posture. Stand up straight. Dancers  and Pilates folk know the drill. Pretend there’s a string running through your spine up through the top of your head. You’re a marionette. Create space. Tilt your pelvis & tailbone forward slightly. And draw your shoulders down and away from your ears.

·      But if you need more than posture – and anyone who doesn’t live in the nudist colony I saw signs for on our trip to Quebec last year does - if you need clothes, then go for well-fitting garments of the best quality you can afford, in neutral colors for the main pieces. 

My first exposure to this theory of wardrobe came via the French teacher at my high school. I didn’t take French, but my friend did, and she reported on lessons on style as taught by Mme. She also reported rumors that Mme wore no underwear, but they were unverified. Images of Mme later blended with images of Sharon Stone in that infamous scene in that infamous movie she made. Forgot what it’s called.

·      Scarves and other accessories for color and pizzazz. Scarves are very popular among the French. And the Italians. Italian men wear scarves, too.
Our tour guide in Pompeii, Mario

Good old Tim Gunn in his tres drôll book, A Guide to Quality, Taste, and Style, told me to go through my clothes and get rid of stuff I don’t like, that doesn’t fit, that I don’t wear, and to identify the “soul-stirring” pieces I own. And then to wear them. Well, I don’t know about soul-stirring, but I do know about saving my favorite items for “someday.” I’m the queen of saving things for someday. Especially anything new. Only someday never comes, does it? And now I’m That Age. Fewer tomorrows ahead of me. So I’ve started wearing those saved things more often now.

Emboldened by the closet purge, I approached the owner of a boutique I really like and asked if she ever does style consultations. She said she does them all the time –for free. She said I can bring in a few of my things and show them to her and she can use them to make suggestions and so on. It turns out she’s just turned the golden age herself. And she looks fab – pixie cut, cute outfits, and best of all, a similar body shape to mine. I haven’t taken her up on her suggestion yet, because the boutique is a bit cher, as we French say. But I’m thinking about it.

·      Good haircut, good shoes.

Which morphs us into beauty.


·      Good haircut being an essential here. My style writers devote much amusing print to creating “French” hair, which is, apparently, slightly scraggly, kind of dirty, and slept on. Thank God I’ve got that down. If I washed my hair every day, it would be so puffy you’d never see my face.

My good haircut is, however, in danger. My stylist, you see, has fallen out with his business partner, who happens to be his sister, and he has left his salon in a huff. I’ve followed him to a temporary place until he starts another one; but I’m worried.

·      Make-up of an enhancing rather than en-masking nature. This is apparently only possible once you’ve passed the teen years. Dramatic eyeliner is the style around these parts for the under 16 set. For those older than 30, it’s the unnaturally natural look, all the way.

Take it from me, a lot more women are wearing the unnaturally natural look than you think. I didn’t realize it, until I discovered Trish McEvoy. When we lived in NYC, I used to get my hair cut at Frederic Fekkai, which was upstairs at Bendel’s. One day, I strayed too close to one of the make-up counters, and before I knew it, a charming young fellow was working me over.
             “Listen,” I told him. “I’m from Boston. In Boston, women don’t wear make-up.”
             “Yes they do,” he said. “Half of them are wearing Trish.”
I left with a lovely kit of practically invisible stuff. I only needed about ten items for the natural look.

·      Facials and more. Here’s the sticking point for me. Apparently every female in France has an intimate relationship with a dermatologist-aesthetician and also, peut etre, with a pharmacist.  
Pharmacies in Italy, by the way, were nearly as fascinating as pharmacies in France apparently are. The 10th grader and I experienced one when one of us, no need to mention which one, because she might be embarrassed, ran out of deodorant. The whole store was full of interesting bottles and tubes, and all the names and ingredients were in European, so we could barely understand half of them. I figured this meant they were automatically at least one standard deviation above the norm, quality-wise, compared to what we can find at home in CVS. We bought a deodorant, after resorting (on my part) to some ape-like gestures. Guess what? We love it. It smells great. And so, when we used it up, we went online, and were able to order some through that Hachette-murdering website (Amazon, for you unliterary types), for at least three times the price of drugstore deodorant.

·      Argan oil. I bought some at the local food co-op, so I know it’s pure, not laced with corn oil or little bits of titanium dioxide (see upsetting Mother Jones article). I’ve used it on my face, my neck, my, uh, sternum, and my scalp.

·      Retin-A. Really, this should go without saying. It’s one thing that actually works. And, oddly, insurance paid for it the last time I got a prescription!

Oh, the hours I’ve spent reading up on beauty treatments, cleansers, lotions, and other potions. It’s. Well, let’s just say I wish I could be paid for them all.

Other lessons I’ve absorbed for your edification, as well as mine, include the following.

·      Water. Drink it. A lot. First thing in the morning. I already do this. Check. I’m a thirsty gal. Half the time, I’m worried I have sudden onset diabetes. So far, no. BTW, years ago I read that Donna Karan does this, too. Drinks a glass of water first thing, that is. I don’t know about the hypochondria. I felt validated, for absolutely no reason, by this information. But I never forgot it.

This reminds me of the saddest thing I’ve learned. French women don’t drink much wine. They sip a little. But they’re not teetering around sozzled.  And they don’t do cocktails. Too many calories. Too drying to the skin. Which brings us to….

·      Moisturize. Again, I’m already on it. I have dry skin and a history of eczema, so I’ve been moisturizing for years.

I feel I must end this post with one of my favorite jokes. It pretty much sums up this whole style thing. Ready?

Q: Why are you sophisticated when you’re going to the bathroom?
A: ‘Cuz European.

Get it? Say it slowly. Break it down. “Eur-o-pe-an.” Get it?

Okay. Good. Have a good weekend!


Giuliano, Mereille. French Women Don't Get Facelifts & French Women Don't Get Fat.
Gunn, Tim. A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style.
Jett, Tish. Forever Chic.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Annals of Successful Acceptance of Aging

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn? 
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

It’s been an interesting week. First off, put a little hatch mark under There is a Higher Order in the Universe. I know, what? What am I saying? Me the atheist/agnostic? I’m saying that you can just put one notch in the belt of those who buy all that abundance theory and stuff. Wha? Wha? Hardened East Coast cynic – moi – getting all woo-hoo now?

My point is, Readers, that no sooner did I write that I wanted paying work than I got some. Yes. I sent my message out There, into the Universe, and something came back to me. Okay, sure, it involved networking, a very earthly pursuit, not at all woo-woo. But whatever. That’s the fine print, and let’s just not read it. I’m lilting upwards. I have a short writing project, and if I do it well, I might get more from this company. Meanwhile, I also got a tip from a friend about a great networking contact and I’ve sent out a message to him. So.

Okay, second of all, in pursuit of French style – and, let’s be frank, eternal youth – I’ve gone part way down a strange rabbit hole. The rabbit hole of cosmetic enhancement. Actually, I’m not after eternal youth. Truly. I’m more interested in eternal 40. You know, just basically looking about 40 for the next, oh, thirty years.

Don’t worry, I’m not planning any surgery. All I was thinking of was getting a facial. However, I wanted to find out about getting a couple of little dark spots removed. So I went to a new dermatologist, one who does cosmetic stuff as well as medical, one who has an esthetician on staff. I had my moles checked. You should do that every year, especially if, like I did, you grew up when sunscreen was suntan lotion, and the numbers on the bottle indicated how much more the lotion intensified the effects of the sun. Moles all fine, so far. So I was free to go for the main draw, a free consultation with this esthetician. She pulled the old trick of pausing just long enough that you start talking. You know, I started by asking about facials, but then she asked, “Anything else you’re concerned about?” Pause. Pause, pause, pause. And before I knew it we were talking lasers and she was recommending chemical peels for “premature aging.”

Premature aging. Premature aging? I stared at this esthetician with unblemished skin, part of me crushed. I hadn’t thought I had premature aging, just regular old run-of-the-mill aging. Maybe even a little behind schedule, if I’m honest about how I felt before I went in there. I went in thinking about maintaining what I have now – thus, facials, and maybe a cream or two – and now I’m wondering how I’ve managed to hold my head up with any pride at all, due to my PREMATURE AGING.

So part of me was crushed, but part of me realized that, of course, this free consultation is a sales pitch. Therefore, triggering my insecurities was a necessary part of the deal.

I did not succumb. I made an appointment for a facial. She was booked into early June, which is good. I have time to reconsider. I left with several samples of lovely French cleansers and creams and eye gels. The French may not get facelifts, but let me tell you, they use a lot of creams, and they get a lot of injections. I know. I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject.

I’ll admit to feeling a bit wooly and dilapidated for a couple of hours after that consultation. And to searching the interwebs for other local medical spa type facilities. (There are a surprising number of them around here, considering the population density.) And to weighing the costs of college for the children against facial maintenance for myself and considering the benefits of a full time job. And to applying argan oil to my cuticles. And to ordering a rather expensive serum and doing a bunch of Pilates mini-workouts.* And then to going to lunch with an elegant friend who is a bit older than I, who told me I have good skin and that you can’t see much grey in my hair. And that she found the little brown spots I mentioned “cute.”  

And to spending too much time staring at my face.

Third of all - and may this prove that I pay attention to things outside of my own psyche, at least on
occasion - the eggs hatched in the nest on our little side porch, and the bird babies flew away. The tenth grader took some pictures, because she has a few inches on me and could get a better angle. I feel inordinately proud of this natural unfolding, although it had nothing to do with me. I was all too happy to forgo using the broom. I guess I’ll get to that this weekend. I don’t have any procedures planned.

*By the way, the Pilates workouts are available on The Balanced Life. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Dress for Success

"What’s this focus on French chic?” The husband asked the other day. I was embarrassed he’d noticed. Although, really, how could he not have? Instead of reading our book club book for our upcoming meeting, I’d read three books on fashion and style. Plus, I'd been spending a lot of time reading style blogs by women over forty. 

How to articulate? The vision of a simple, elegant low-heeled shoe, the capstone (foundation stone?) of a simple, elegant outfit came to mind. Something dressier than, say, yoga pants and sneakers. I’ve had this vision since we were in the Rome airport. An older woman walked by, dressed a standard deviation or two above the norm for travel. We were surrounded by a large group of American college athletes, so you know what the dress code was. Sweats and jeans, leggings and sweats. This older woman was obviously not American. So maybe it’s not fair to compare. But I thought, I’m halfway between that – the schlumpy students – and that – the elegant older lady, and I want to be more like her when I grow up, than like the older version of these college kids.

But my interest predated that. Packing for the trip triggered a lot of thoughts about clothes and style. Some of it is certainly related to the ongoing trauma of turning fifty. It’s not like I want to start wearing couture. That’s boring and stuffy. But there is certainly an aspect of this interest that has to do with last ditch efforts before my face falls into my neck. As I told my sister the psychoanalyst, I’m not giving up without a fight.

And then a couple of women I know, about my age, returned to work, part time or full time, and that triggered thoughts, about my connection with the outside world of commerce and responsibility, about financial freedom, and about - for lack of a better word - “lifestyle.” I felt envious of these women. Their need to dress up a bit. Their need to exercise different parts of their brains and to have colleagues and eat at lunch trucks and wear shoes that click-clack when they walk. I found myself actually kind of yearning for that.

And I thought, well, am I sick of my book? Am I giving up on my book? Am I doing what I’ve usually done when I get sick of and despairing about my writing: focusing on something that seems easier, like getting a “real” job and earning some actual money?

Maybe the solution is to do both. The kids don’t need me in the same way. I can work while they are around. But I need to earn money. I want to. Not just for more, but to save for retirement and so on. I feel afraid of the future, for sure, and I want to do something about it. Also, I want the mental and social engagement with the world.  Sure, in my dreams, I’m traveling around giving readings and appearing on talk shows and so on, but let’s be real. The book has come along discouragingly slowly, and I’ve been playing the whole, I’ll wait until I get the proposal done and out before looking for work thing for a couple of years now. That's getting old.

Another thing this dressing and style thing-o reminds me of is that old saying to “dress for the job you want.” This worked for me right out of college, when I was a receptionist at a law firm. Quickly, the boss promoted me to paralegal. It turned out that neither of those jobs were jobs I wanted, but that’s another drumbeat. After that it was thrift-store finds, jeans, t-shirts, and pretty soon I was doing data entry, writing novels, and eventually, unemployed. In short, it worked.  Anyhoo, now I’m feeling like being more part of the world, and so I’m dressing for that and hoping to create opportunities.

While I felt called out by the husband, it was only because I felt some shame. All this focus on appearance felt important, but also really, really shallow. Really, it's both symbolic and literal. Part of the interest is about upgrading my wardrobe; however, part of my style obsession definitely has to do with shoring myself up from the outside, since I’ve been feeling discouraged inside. One of the themes of these books is that building a good façade helps us feel good inside. Taking time to care for self, health, diet, skin, and wardrobe cultivates feeling “bien dans votre peau” or something – happy in your own skin, roughly translated. If I can build confidence in one area, it bleeds into other areas, too. So.

That’s what’s with the focus on French chic.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lost Lovey and Other Life Challenges

While my book has remained untouched this week, I have solved two problems I mentioned in my last post. The first, easier to solve problem, was the crazy eyebrows. Solution: eyebrow gel. This looks like clear mascara, and is available at the drug store.

The second problem was the left behind lovey. That one’s not solved yet, but plans exist for a solution. Ah, the saga of Bunny. Not my bunny, Bunny, but the 10th grader’s bunny, Bunny.
She still needs Bunny

I would have to tote this up as our most major trip-related glitch. To effect the return of this fifteen year old stuffed bunny – and I’ll believe it when I actually see the grey old thing again – has so far required about a thousand and twelve emails with the Hilton Garden Inn at Rome Fiumicimo Airport, the filling out of two forms, faxing (required, who knows why) of my credit card information, a copy of my passport, and two trips to the shipping center because we don’t have a fax machine and the fax didn’t go through the first time – why not? Because Italy?  The return now has involved at least one random Italian bank holiday, my MIL, my MIL's friends, my MIL's friends' son, one of my brothers-in-law, and, I am grateful to add, kind offers from at least two friends to transfer Bunny into their hands, or into the hands of a relative of theirs, when next they go to various points in Europe.

What a cosmopolitan set I run with!

Anyhoo, Bunny will be delivered by DHL to my MIL when she is in London visiting friends next week at a cost of 36 Euros (plus credit card fee, I’m sure). Not to mention one phone call to Rome, and $7 to fax the above-mentioned information, which may or may not be safer than scanning and emailing it, but is certainly more costly and inconvenient. I’m hopeful that Bunny will wing it back to the states at the end of next week. Then we’ll just need to force ourselves to get to NYC to pick her up. I don’t know how or when or why we’d ever want to force ourselves to NYC…..

This plan remains theoretical.

The glitch aspect is real, though. Although preferable to breaking an ankle, leaving behind this lovey has been an expensive and time-consuming problem. There’s the need to not forget about Bunny, to follow up with the operations manager and the front desk at the hotel on sending the required forms and obtaining price quotes, which takes energy and periodic allotment of time. There’s the processing of the news that to return Bunny to us at home would cost 70 Euros. That’s over a hundred dollars. That’s a lot of smackeroos, but still falls under the heading of Be Careful What You Wish For, because, if you remember from my last post, I hoped simply that the cost would be less than doing laundry in our hotel in Rome was, and it is that.

I’m pausing to let that last bit sink in for you, Readers. Travel tip: Before you leave  home, research laundry services that pick up and deliver, if you won’t have time to visit a Laundromat. Hotel laundry can be repulsively expensive. And yes, we did wash a bunch of stuff in the sink; but a family of four racks up more than a sink’s worth of laundry in a few days.

But, really, when it comes to a lovey, value is inestimable. Right? I still have my bunny, Bunny. She’s basically thread and disintegrating, yellowed foam at this point. I would show you a picture of her, but you might laugh – and then I’d have to hate you, Readers. Bunny is kind of my Dorian Grey portrait, if I think about her existence in a certain (bleak) way. Thread and yellowed foam stuffing, patched over, with shredded ears of unequal lengths, in an old doll’s dress. She’s fifty years old.

I’ve held up better than that.  And now that I’ve got this eyebrow gel, things are looking good.

Who knows if the fifteen year old will hang on to her bunny as long as I have? But I want her to have the chance. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to follow up with Simone, Francesca, Alessia, and Oscar at the Hilton Garden Inn at Rome Fiumicimo.